by Edwin Torkelsen  |  19 October 2019  |

Certain dates become important markers in our personal life because they represent the tipping point between before and after: birthday, wedding, first-child-day. Our last day alive will certainly also qualify, though we are unable to remember it. Let’s hope someone else does.

Most nations also have such special days. In the United States July 4 probably tops the list, with September 11, 2001, as a significant second. In Norway, where I live, May 17 equals July 4, and April 9 would be a good second choice (when Hitler invaded Norway).

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a number of these dates that mark before and after. October 22, 1844, certainly tops the list. That date has been elevated to theological significance, as well as an important identity marker of the SDA denomination. I think the 1888 General Conference (GC) session, that introduced the idea of righteousness by faith, will be a good candidate for second place. But there are more: 1901 GC session; Ellen G White’s death July 16, 1915; the 1919 Bible Conference; the publishing of the book Questions On Doctrine in 1957 that tried to steer the church in a more gospel-focused direction, away from the heavily legalistic and perfectionist theology previously promoted by M. L. Andreasen. The mock trial of Dr Desmond Ford at Glacier View, Colorado, in 1980 caused an earthquake in the church when the gospel-focused theology of Dr Ford collided with the traditional conservative, more legalistic and rules- and behavior-focused ideas of the the church’s top administrators. The fallout in lost members and pastors was immense. But in the long run Desmond Ford’s gospel message has gained considerable ground. However, the tension is still there.

October 31, 1517

Significant days will often appear to be quite insignificant to the people who witness them. It does not matter if what happened was good or bad. Their impact on the time after, will often be noticed later, often a long time later. 

October 31, 1517, was such a day. The people who happened to witness Dr Martin Luther put up his 95 theses on the door of the castle church may or may not have noticed that all was written in Latin, which most did not understand, even if they happened to be able to read at all. If this actually happened on that day, we don’t know for sure, but that is how tradition has it. The act itself was a quite common occurrence. Nothing to raise an eyebrow about. 

That apparently insignificant act by an insignificant person on an insignificant day soon raised a roar heard all around Europe, even to the cold shores of Norway. Echoes were heard down to our own day. It caused the Pope and his church to shake and tremble. They feared the consequences of rebellion in the church. 

Their strategy to meet such challenges was old and tested. It had proved to be quite successful. First, a fairly innocuous invitation to discuss the matter. But stage two followed rapidly, and the purpose was unmistakable – back down, disregard conscience, and submit to church authority. Threats of coercion and punitive actions could not be misunderstood. 

Luther had no doubts what that meant. He remembered well John Hus (uncertain birth date, about 1370 – 1415), who accepted an invitation to the Council of Constance, trusted the emperor’s promise that he would be allowed to return home safely. That was his great mistake – trusting Church and Emperor. His life ended in the flames kindled around him on the town square. 

Luther knew his church and its leadership, its teachings, and its tradition how to handle dissidents. He knew all too well the voice of the Pope. That voice always focused on the tenets of the church and its many councils, and it always demanded unconditional submission and obedience to church authority, doctrines and policies. Its use of coercion and punitive actions was a given. And, of course, Pope and Councils always spoke on behalf of God. God was always on their side.

October 15, 2019

I am sure many Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) today (October 18, the date I write these lines) ponder this date and its possible significance. The afternoon session that day of the 2019 General Conference Executive Committee (GCEC) looms large in our minds because it happened only three days ago. Being so close to us in time may exaggerate its significance. We know what happened that day, and our reactions, emotional or otherwise, may vary. But we do not know what will happen next. It is easier to be an historian than a prophet. Historians interpret what happened in the past; but sometimes we catch them wondering about the future, which is not their field of expertise.

Today I struggle with this dilemma – pondering the past and wondering about the future. My time perspective is, naturally, longer than from three days ago. Of course, I tend to interpret what happened in the light of what happened in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Space does not allow me to write the history of the SDA Church in this period. It will probably be written by competent historians in the future. Then we will also know what consequences followed from what happened in the period 2015-2019.

A brief summary may be necessary at this point in time: 

The issue of women’s place in the organizational system of the SDA Church has been debated for decades. Much of the debate and the many articles and papers written have focused on the status of women in Adventist pastoral ministry. The trigger word has been ordination. May women be “ordained” to pastoral ministry? As of today the official position is, They may, but not now. 

Reading the votes taken from time to time closely, reveals that this position is not absolute, but temporary. Not now. The rationale is that ordaining women may cause opposition in cultures where the status of men as leaders predominates. So, to keep the peace and unity in the Church, it feels safer to exclude women from being ordained.

Discussions and positions have been manifold. On the extreme right, the position is held that the Bible—that is, primarily a few texts in the letters of Paul—when read at face value, using the “proof text” method that excludes any serious contextualization, excludes women from any spiritual leadership in the Church that involves “authority over men.” A variety of arguments have been fielded to support this position, some of them rather “special.”

On the left side the position has generally been that these texts from Paul address specific problems prevalent in certain churches. They are, and never were intended as, global and general prohibitions, valid at all times and everywhere. This follows from a contextualized reading method that takes into consideration the immediate situation that confronted Paul when he wrote, as well as other texts where Paul clearly states that in the Christian Church there should be no difference in status between social classes, ethnic groups, and different genders. The members of the Church are all united as one in Christ; they all belong to the New Testament priesthood of all believers, no exceptions accepted. 

In addition, the broader ethos of the Bible is included, pointing to the fact that the record in the Bible depicts both Jesus and Paul as lifting up and empowering women. Which was a very radical thing to do in the first century AD social environment.  Reading Paul’s advice to some church leaders regarding women in a literal, non-contextualized, manner and interpreting them as globally valid in both space and time certainly makes Paul contradict himself.

2010 General Conference

In 2010 Ted N.C. Wilson was elected to replace Jan Paulsen as President of the General Conference. This choice was applauded by the delegates from the Third World. They saw Ted Wilson, as he usually is called, as their man. In the Western part of the SDA Church this choice was not generally applauded. Wilson was known as radically conservative in his theology and for his almost worshipful adoration of Ellen G. White (EGW) and her writings. His acceptance sermon confirmed this view. 

Ted Wilson was also perceived by some as a shrewd, even scheming and manipulative, church politician who had entertained strong personal ambitions from an early age to become President of the General Conference, like his father Neal C. Wilson (1920-2010), who was GC president 1979-1990. Some felt that Ted Wilson was an inflexible person with a strong personal agenda to form the SDA Church in his own image and according to his particular end-time focused theology. They feared that this attitude and agenda might divide and polarize the SDA Church. Their fears have proved to have some merit.

2015 General Conference

I am almost sure that this date will remain a marker in time, before and after, in the history of the SDA Church. Ted Wilson was reelected to a second term. Since 2010 Wilson had given priority to the question of women’s ordination (WO). He wanted to have this issue wiped off the table and establish forever that women were not eligible for ordination.

To obtain this goal he initiated a very valuable project, a global study venture called Theology of Ordination Study Committee, TOSC. All 13 Divisions were tasked to study this question, and a TOSC group in the General Conference (GC) was set up to coordinate this project. Wilson seems to have had high hopes that this project would conclude that no women may be ordained.

His hopes were crushed. The majority of the Division reports concluded either for WO or were neutral; that is, some preferred not to ordain women, but would accept that other divisions did. Only three Divisions were against WO and demanded that all other Divisions also should refrain from ordaining women. However, these numbers are not so important. They only record what opinions prevailed where.

The important main conclusion of the study was that there was nothing found in the Bible or in the writings of EGW that prevented women from being ordained. There were no valid theological reasons for excluding women from ordination.

The logical consequence of the TOSC reports is very simple: If there are no theological reasons for excluding women from ordination, a continued policy of doing so was pure and simple arbitrary discrimination. 

Fortunately, our church does have policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination of every sort, including gender-based discrimination. Unfortunately, some not-so-bright mind has come up with the idea that a global non-discrimination policy needs an exception clause. We don’t discriminate – except when we do (in casu, for positions requiring ordination). Of course, this exception clause nullifies all the nice talk of non-discrimination. 

The results of the TOSC studies apparently did not please the gentlemen in the GC administration, especially Ted Wilson himself. TOSC had not provided Elder Wilson with the tools he wanted for keeping women from being ordained. If they were ordained, all doors were opened for women to be presidents of conferences, unions and the GC. That would be a given if non-discrimination became a real functional policy.

Ted Wilson chose the 2015 GC session as an opportunity to neutralize the results of the TOSC study. A question was formulated and presented to the session for a vote: May the Divisions themselves decide whether or not to ordain women? The outcome was no surprise. The Developing World delegates voted no, the western delegates voted yes. Wilson got the vote he wanted.

When the results of the votes were presented, Wilson declared: Nothing has changed. In reality the GC leadership decided to interpret this vote as if everything had changed. While all previous votes had a temporary conclusion – not now, please – the 2015 vote was suddenly interpreted as a global prohibition against WO. This interpretation, made unilaterally by the GC leadership themselves, now apparently created a new legal platform for opening a war against those unions that did ordain women.

2016

The campaign opened in earnest at the 2016 Autumn Council. Draconian documents were drafted, demanding submission and obedience, and threatening with dire consequences. A somewhat modified document outlining a process on how to proceed was presented to the General Conference Annual Council (GCAC) at the last meeting of the last day. The delegates were given no chance to study the document for themselves. The document was read and a vote demanded. Protests were heard and brushed aside. The document passed, predictably, with the majority votes from the Third World. However, the proposed process was never followed as outlined in the document. That took too much time.

2017

The same scenario, with the same strategy, repeated itself in GCAC 2017. The document to be discussed was kept secret until the opening of the session the day it was discussed. The delegates were refused, upon request, time to study the document before the meeting opened. 

Here a strategy pattern emerges – manipulation by repeatedly keeping crucial information secret to the last minute, thereby preventing delegates to discuss it among themselves in private. Lack of  procedural transparency is used as a manipulative tool. 

This time a number of punitive actions were proposed, all of them as if directly copied from the Middle Ages: Demands for written declarations of loyalty and obedience to all present and future votes and policies; public shaming and naming of those who refused to sign; loss of voice and vote in GCACs and GC in session; loyalty declarations to be demanded from all future delegates to GC sessions. Prohibition against speaking in opposition to any voted GC policy.

It was a grotesque display of power attempting to stamp out not only opposition, but also to control and prevent free speech and freedom of conscience. The stench of Medieval ecclesiastical thinking and methods filled the room. The GC leaders met with strong opposition. Former GC President Jan Paulsen’s remark said it all.”I do not see God’s finger in this document. My loyalty is written in my heart.”

The document failed to pass, fortunately, but as a face saver was sent back for revision.

In that same session the machinations of the top GC leadership behind the scene were revealed. GC Vice President Thomas Lemon informed the session that the document was not the product of the Unity Oversight Committee (UOC) that he chaired, but had been handed down to him from the top, to be presented to the AC as if it were their product. A clear act of dishonest deception. 

Thomas Lemon also reported from his talks with the “rebellious” unions. His conclusion: He had not met with one person that could be classified as a “rebel” in any sense of the word. 

Well, that ought to have closed the proceedings. If there are no rebels, there are no rebels to prosecute. Of course, within hours Thomas Lemon was no longer chair of the Unity Oversight Committee.

It also became clear that the General Conference and Division Officers Committee (GCDO) that approves of the agenda had voted down this document with a good margin. However, after that Ted Wilson asked absentee members of the committee to vote in absentia. That procured a majority of one: 1 vote. The GCDO committee was clearly split right down the middle, 50/50. When confronted with this information, Ted Wilson simply brushed the issue aside, saying this was confidential information that some unethical person had leaked – you were not supposed to know that.

Again, lack of transparency emerges as an important tool in Ted Wilson’s political maneuvering.

2018

Considering the heavy opposition that the GC leaders had met in 2016 and 2017, one would expect them to attempt a learning process. First, a document cannot only be assessed on the basis of its formal legality; in a church setting that operates in the area of moral principles, those basic moral principles have to inform any document and any action. Of course, a document must be legal, but primarily in a moral sense. 

Moral principles should and must always infuse all policies and actions. If a formally voted action, document or policy violates basic moral principles, it may be technically legally valid, but morally totally invalid. Moral principles always trump technical legalities. Read the New Testament. You won’t read far to discover how Jesus and the apostles uphold that principle, actually promoting active opposition and disobedience to religious authorities. There are always moral limits to the validity of and obedience to authority, be it popes or councils. SDA leadership and councils are not exempt.

GCAC 2018 gave a glaring example of this confrontation between legality and morality. The now infamous Compliance Committees document that was presented, was in its content a blueprint copy of the Roman Inquisition. Ted Wilson’s 45-minute introduction of the document argued extensively for its formal legal necessity and validity. His minions followed up with shorter speeches with the same content. Everything about this document is legally OK. None of them as much as touched upon the issue of the moral values of the document. Not one word. That is understandable. You would be hard put to try to defend that document, along with the previous 2016 and 2017 documents, from a truly biblical moral point of view. They are all completely void of any moral reflection. 

The comments from the floor were clearly in two different categories. All who spoke for the document argued the legal points. Those who spoke against, argued the moral points. Unfortunately morality lost and the legalists won the vote. 

2019

I will not elaborate on what transpired on October 15 at the 2019 GCAC. That has been reported by Bonnie Dwyer in Spectrum and Loren Seibold in Adventist Today. I assume most readers of this article have read both. All I can say is that the pattern that emerges from the period 2015-2019 is a very clear and consistent one. Here is my assessment:

The GC leadership has an agenda. That agenda includes among other things barring women from ordination, thus barring them from holding senior church leadership positions. That is the centerpiece. They promote this agenda strongly and consistently by all available means, without being moved by any form of opposing ideas. When confronted or asked questions, they brush them aside as irrelevant and/or wrong. All requests for answer or dialog are left unanswered. Their minds and hearts are made up and closed. They seem to move in a completely closed universe, some kind of bubble, either incapable or unwilling to consider ideas like moral principles. They are locked down in a legal mindset that disregards morality.

From that premise it probably appears logical to them to proceed to solve differences of opinion only in the light of legalities. The rules are the supreme rulers. The procedural premise is not “redemptive discipline” as they claim, which is a process that seeks consensus and/or tolerance of diversity which is displayed so clearly in the Jerusalem Council. Redemptive discipline does not speak deserved punishment. It speaks peaceful reconciliation between equals. It will never use gaslighting tools such as threats of coercion, shaming and naming, removal of voice and vote.

The past four years has been an extraordinary line of opportunities to explore win-win possibilities. Every such possibility has been bypassed and left unexplored. Instead they have seen nothing else than either-or options, black and white, for or against. The results have been more and deeper divisions. Therefore the title of this article: This has been a period when the GC leadership has stubbornly and inflexibly followed their “Ministry of Lost Possibilities.”

2019 has been only the most recent stepping stone in a downward spiral of missed opportunities to create real, healthy, and Bible-based unity. There is nothing new in sight.

The future

The question many ask today is: Does the SDA denomination still have a future? Of course, it will always have some kind of future. But what kind?

I do not have the answer. Nobody else has the answer. Prophetic pronouncements about the future, be they the scary slippery slope type or the optimistic-but-passive “God will take care of it,” both disregard God’s enormous tolerance and respect for human will and choice. 

The future lies in our hands, and they are free. God waits for us to ask his advice when we make our choices. He is willing to answer. But we are often unwilling to listen, much less follow his advice if it differs from our own agenda. How does God try to lead us? Hardly through private dreams and revelations. Mostly through regular people like you and me who, with different perspectives, come together and reason together. And listen and learn together. That may be a challenging process, because it implies some give and take, some compromise, some learning and some unlearning. Like the Jerusalem Council.

God’s way forward is never decided by strong human leaders with limitless self-confidence, nor by policies voted by church councils, and absolutely not by simple majority votes. The number of votes for or against is never a safe indication that the result is God’s will. 

Historically our church has pointed to the fact that most often God is on the side of the minority, seldom on the side of the majority. We have strongly advised against Medieval church councils that have debated doctrines, taken votes, and pronounced the results to be the leading of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of transubstantiation was debated and voted by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It became one of the doctrines of the church at that time and has survived to this day. The teaching of papal infallibility was debated, voted, and proclaimed to be a doctrine of the Church by the First Vatican Council in 1870. The process was extremely devious and manipulative, but that is a story for another day.

If you honor Ellen White’s writings, you will know how she warned against unconditionally following the decisions of men, including SDA church leaders and councils. Authority always has conditions and limits. Beware of those who claim obedience to authority without mentioning these conditions and limits. History shows that such people are dangerous, a threat to freedoms of every kind, most of all to freedom of conscience.

It follows that the number of votes for or against has no value in itself. We fool ourselves if think or speak to that effect. Every council decision, voted document, official statement, should always be tested against the supreme authority of the fundamental ethical principles of the Bible. If votes, actions and documents do not speak according to them, it is because there is no light from God in them. Before you accept any document or vote as biblically valid, look for that finger of God in them. It is not enough that some leaders claim that God is in it. They don’t decide that. We need to see that finger ourselves.

Collections of proof texts from the Bible are often of little value. It is our interpretation and application of them that may pose a problem. By proof texting you can defend slavery, degrade and discriminate against, and prohibit ordination of women. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to claim that almost every thing we do, every idea we promote, every policy we vote, and every statement we make is “biblical,” simply because we have collected some Bible texts that we put in there. To me that is close to blasphemy, because we declare that what we state are God’s ideas. We need to be extremely careful when we claim that God speaks through us. The Medieval Church did that. We tend to do the same far too often.

Will our church split? That depends on what we mean by “split.” I don’t think a schism is immediately impending. But to avoid a bad scenario, our present organization system will need a renovation that will give the world regions real independence and self-government in matters of organization, policies, Church Manual rules, content and format of worship styles, liturgy, etc.

The root cause of our present predicament is the unfortunate and inflexible notion that “unity” = uniformity in all such practical matters, including the label we put on a certain prayer ceremony. We can have plenty of genuine spiritual unity in Christ, and share all our main theological positions, without being uniformly streamlined as robots in all these mainly culturally determined variations.

Of course, we need a change of mind and heart in order to be filled with grace and tolerance, as we slowly begin to exercise humility that is open to change and real, spirit-filled unity that will appreciate and love diversity.

What we see today are the cracks opening in our present institutional model that is beginning to burst under the unsustainable burden of the idea of a monolithic and hierarchical “World Church” founded on highly human ecclesiastical authoritarian authority.

Leaders may claim this giant on clay feet to be democratic and representative. That claim is a mirage of El Dorado, and a far cry from reality. It is a system that is strikingly similar to the Communist idea of Democratic Centralism, invented by Lenin and practiced in all Communist regimes. Like it or not – check the meaning/definition of that term. 

What happens next? That depends on what we – all of us – decide to do. I still believe that a church like ours may benefit from organization and leadership. But not any organization and every sort of leadership. Both organization and leaders must have their feet on the ground, not only their head in the clouds. An assessment of reality and needs must continually guide us, and we must always be open to change and adaption. 

That change includes organizational structures, as well as making sure that the leaders we elect have both their heart and head in the right place. Leaders with personal agendas must not be allowed to hijack our church. Their minds must be open and listening, understanding the times, places, and circumstances. Leaders must consult, listen more than they talk, and be willing to learn when the Holy Spirit speaks through them that have ideas that differ from their own. Leaders who gather around them only counselors who share their own ideas are in grave danger of closing the door in the face of the Holy Spirit. 

I can only wonder about the future. Based on the record of the present GC administration over the past four years, I see no immediate solutions to our conundrum. In this particular process, there seem to be few, if any, at the GC who have stopped to reconsider their strategy in light of its fruits. The Bible tells us that by the fruits we shall know the tree. 

GC’s stated objective has been to safeguard the “unity” of the church. Never has a GC president talked so much about church unity; hardly ever have the actions of a top GC administration produced so much conflict and disunity. Never have I noticed that GC leadership has stopped to reconsider whether or not their strategies and documents and policies are the main cause to blame for this counterproductive outcome. On the contrary, they have stubbornly insisted on pursuing their original strategy – obedience to “law and order,” coercion, demands to submit to authority, disregarding the collective conscience of whole unions, threatening dissidents with dire consequences, loss of voice and vote, and public shaming. This is the strategy that this GC administration will be remembered for.

The flexibility and unity in diversity exemplified by the Jerusalem Council seem to be far beyond their ability to grasp. They seem to understand only “law and order,” demands for submission, and obedience to authority.

Hypothetically, there may still remain a glimmer of hope, even for this GC administration.

What if .the GC leadership one day would display some humility, step forward and with contrite hearts confess that the GC 2015 vote was a huge mistake, and that all that followed, building on an arbitrary interpretation of that vote, has been an equally big mistake? What if they would admit that after seriously considering the fruits of all that effort, it has turned out to be bad fruit, because it came from a bad tree? 

Leaders displaying such humility, asking all church members forgiveness for all the harm they have inflicted on the body of Christ …. That might trigger a revival and reformation that our church has never witnessed before …. What if …. ?


Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo, and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.

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